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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

David Byrne, day four: speaking in tongues

The final night of David Byrne's four-concert series at Carnegie Hall took place on February 4 in the building's basement, otherwise known as Zankel Hall, and this time he did not perform a single note. The concert instead featured three acts—Haale, Alarm Will Sound, and Camille—performing separately in a program called 'One Note'.

Explaining the concept at the start of the show, Byrne retired his trademark awkwardness in favor of more straightforward communication. Unlike the 'weird folk' concert two nights earlier, the musicians assembled on February 4 were not part of an established scene. The connections among them were made by Byrne himself. Curatorially, he was taking more of a risk. Which leads me to propose a hypothesis about Byrne's stage persona: that there may be a directly proportional relationship between his creative certainty and his professional awkwardness: the more confident he is about what he's doing, the more ostentatiously he performs the rituals and tics of awkwardness. A legacy from the punk era perhaps?

The common trait shared by the night's musicians was that their music tends to feature a drone or single note running through their compositions. All three acts were outstanding. The middle group, Alarm Will Sound, is a contemporary classical ensemble best known for performing orchestral arrangements of Aphex Twin. They played one of those, a piece by Scelsi, and a Renaissance saltarello with unusual attention to visual presentation. I'd like to say more, but I have neither the vocabulary nor the experience to say anything worthwhile about classical music. As good as they were, the other two acts blew me away.

The first act of the night was Haale, whose erotic, hypnotic music offers the union of Iranian Sufism and Jimi Hendrix. True, these days combining unexpected genres is what everyone does and hardly merits a raised eyebrow, let alone a defense. David Byrne has been quietly combining classical strings and Brazilian percussion for a while without offering any manifestos on the subject (nor, regrettably, attracting the attention his music deserves).

In Haale's case, the more one knows about Hendrix and Sufism, the less bizarre the combination sounds. Some years ago, I described Sufis to a friend as 'the hippies of Islam' and I now see, thanks to Google, that I'm not the only one to use that phrase. Her guitarist John Shannon played with the requisite amount of feedback to evoke Hendrix while Haale set sensual fire to the hall by singing songs of passion and poems of Rumi in the ecstatic vocal style that traditional Sufis believed led one to feel the divine. And I was definitely feeling it. It was extremely erotic, to say the least. And at the level of literal influence, she even had a song about Hendrix himself set during his military service when he would sit in the aeroplane listening to the motor and the wind before his parachute jumps. (In the midst of writing this, I just ordered her two EP's from her website. Tune in soon for an update.)

The final act, Camille, was also quite musically sexy but in a much more terrifying vein. She made just about every sound that a human mouth can make from screeching to moaning to burping to slapping her O-shaped mouth with her open hand. One would run out of verbs before her strange oral creativity could be contained. At one point her pianist even hit her in the back while she was singing in order to make her delivery tremble in a new way. Throughout the show she used a digital sampler to capture her strange emanations which would then play in loops to accompany her live singing.

Her songs were so psychologically tricky that I wonder if I can describe them a week later with any justice. (Yes, I'm about to order her cd's, too, just as soon as I finish this entry.) Imagine a fierce, knowing woman, with ample experience of pain, pleasure, and mind games, offering herself to the world with equal measures of sarcasm and desire. Her advances would be part taunt, part warning, and part need. Not a word could be taken only at face value.

Ah, here are some lyrics of hers online:
'He thought he'd run me over in the middle of the night. He thought he was the devil. But I was the devil and I'd chosen him to run me over. My name is Baby Carni Bird.'
'My name is Baby Carni Bird .
I'm the only one in the world.
I'm yours,
For I can fly up in the air,
And you can shoot me when you like.
I'm yours.'

Now imagine such songs sung in both French and English by a young woman with a voice—and persona—that ranges between Beth Gibbons of Portishead and PJ Harvey. All that plus the onstage antics and charisma of someone who knows she can get away with anything. Anything.

I don't know how deliberate it was on Byrne's part, but the evening was perfectly framed by the two young women. At one end of the night, eroticism as religious ecstasy performed by a delicate-seeming woman of earnest passion and tenderness. At the other, the outrage of a fuck-you carnality staged by a woman at the height of her musical, sexual, and manipulative powers. Yeah, if I were David Byrne, I would not want to look awkward around them either.


Anonymous Blallenge said...


May I pose a blog challenge - a blallenge, if you will - for you to consider?

Perhaps next week you could post your Oscar predictions? You have a reputation for extraordinary accuracy in this matter, and it is always a pleasure to see (and argue) those "Will win . . . Ought to win . . . " lists. And perhaps this will foster a debate about what promises to be the least exciting Oscars in decades. Would Scorsese actually deserve an Oscar for his re-make of Infernal Affairs? Will Babel crash the Oscars?

11:02 PM, February 14, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Blallenge read my mind or perhaps knows me too well. I was planning to do exactly that, and yes, I will include a category for best unreleased film of the year. I just need to see a couple of other films first. Last year I drew the line at Crash and this year Babel is the film I refuse to see. Is there anything less entertaining than liberal didacticism?

It's funny. After screening Almodóvar's Labyrinth of Passion (1982) for my class and assigning interviews with him as readings, I challenged my students (who have all seen Hable con ella and Volver) to discern his political engagements at the level of form in his early film. After the writing and discussion were done, I offered my own opinion: that Almodóvar is one of the most political artists in the world but, because he is a great artist, his films are never heavy-handed, obvious propaganda. And that's what makes his moral propaganda all the more persuasive. (For the record, the word 'propaganda' carries no pejorative connotations for me, and yes, I share Almodóvar's agenda.) Then people make preachy, obvious films like Crash and Babel, and I want to scream when I hear about their supposed Important Message For Our Times. Prejudice = Bad. Really? How courageous.

You can criticize me for not seeing them, but that won't change a thing. One has to draw the line somewhere.

11:41 PM, February 14, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

Blabel is mostly blollocks, but not all blollocks. I do look forward to the other predictions. If Helen Mirren does not win at least seven Oscars I shall stamp and cry.

2:41 PM, February 15, 2007

Anonymous Go Away Blinky said...

The use of "bl" must not be used as promiscuously and meaninglessly as the ersatz "blinky" would have it.

Jeff, I won't criticise you for judging Crash without seeing it; I do that sort of thing all the time. And yet, there is a special pleasure in discovering an unpolished gem where you expected a coal rolled in a turd; it is usually even more rewarding that seeing something that one would think one would love, and discovering it's crap. That having been said, Crash, which I expected to despise, was actually . . . not that bad. It was better than Out of Africa and better than Braveheart and better than just about any single film starring Tom Hanks. And yet, I can't bring myself to see Babel for the very reason you describe.

Perhaps I should save this for your forthcoming Oscar blentry. And blinky - you're not welcome there, at least as far as I'm concerned. Jeff may not erase your comments, but I'll not tolerate them!

4:37 PM, February 15, 2007

Anonymous blinky come back said...

Although, blinky, I think you're right about Helen Mirren.

4:43 PM, February 15, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Go Away speaks only for himself in asking Blinky to go away. All are welcome here. I'd like to think the dialogue at my blog will remain a bit more civilized than at many other blogs. I might be wrong.

I have only deleted one comment so far and that was because [deleted].

4:47 PM, February 15, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

I am glad of Mr Strabone's indulgence, if not of the remarkable hostility of the ersatz "go away blinky", who might be more justified in telling me I was "not welcome" on his own blog - if he had one.

5:37 PM, February 15, 2007

Anonymous blallenge said...

I am the abused party! Blinky comes on and mocks me and everything I stand for (blog-based neologisms), to which I responded, and then the "host" of this site and blinky gang up on me! Well, I'm not feeling very welcome here; but since "everybody" is welcome here, I've pasted a link to here in a Belgian fascist pedo chat room: they will be delighted to know that they're welcome here.

As for my own blog - I'm tempted to start one, just to ban you, Blinky.

9:59 PM, February 15, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I must disagree with Blallenge's characterization of the host's behavior. (This week it's 'behavior', not 'behaviour'. See this comment thread for a recent discussion on orthography and standardization.)

Blallenge asked, 'Will Babel crash the Oscars?' Which I took to mean, Would an undeserving, lazy-liberal, self-congratulatory piece of crap steal the top Oscar from a more deserving film?

I hardly think that agreeing with Blallenge's implicit sentiment constitutes ganging up on him or her.

11:12 PM, February 15, 2007

Anonymous Blatience said...

I didn't mean earlier; I meant later. Of course you took my point seriously about Babel and Crash. It was a very good (although somewhat obvious) point. Criminy. I'm just going to wait for the Oscars thread.

7:06 AM, February 16, 2007

Anonymous blinky said...

As for my own blog - I'm tempted to start one, just to ban you, Blinky.

I look forward to it! You could call it "Blinky's Blanned".

11:14 AM, February 16, 2007


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